This is 72: Rock Critic Wayne Robins Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"I’ve been sober for almost twelve years...I’ll never regret drinking that bottle of Maker’s Mark with Keith Richards..."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, veteran music critic, professor, and newsletterer Wayne Robins (whom I first met when I interned at New York Newsday in 1986!) responds. - Sari Botton
How old are you?
I am 72 today, December 14th, 2021.
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
No particular age, but I feel more vital and productive than ever. So obviously, my mind skews younger. Teaching college students for the last nine years helps. I have to stay in touch with today’s music, TV, and pop culture. I play with it: I refer to (rapper/performer) Megan Thee Stallion as “Ms. Thee Stallion,” daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thee Stallion. I also write raps that I sometimes share with my students. (I started writing 55 years ago as a poet and song lyricist).
At the end of May, 2021, I started my Substack, Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins. That’s one of the alternate titles for a memoir I had been working on (“God, Booze, and Rock & Roll” was another title). I feel like I’ve found a writing voice that mixes criticism, commentary, and memoir that readers seem to like, and growth is steadily increasing. It’s been exciting to start a new personal writing business at 71.
Getting sober finally at 60 was definitely a good idea. I was a functioning alcoholic for decades; the decades of hangovers, depression, regret, and sorrow were not good. Not that I didn’t have some great times.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I definitely feel young for my age. I stay au courant with hip-hop. When Paul Simon played his “final concert” at Flushing Meadow Park I thought I was younger than all the “old people” there. A middle-aged woman near me asked if I thought Art Garfunkel would show up, considering the animosity between Paul and Art. I said, “Well, Drake and Meek Mill resolved their beef on stage in Boston last week, so anything’s possible.” And she looked at me as if I was from another planet, which I kind of believe I am.
What do you like about being your age?
I shed a lot of old grievances. I’ve been sober for almost twelve years, so getting sober finally at 60 was definitely a good idea. I was a functioning alcoholic for decades; the decades of hangovers, depression, regret, and sorrow were not good. Not that I didn’t have some great times. I mean, my job was always pop music critic, and during my most productive years at Newsday/New York Newsday (1975-1995), no one expected me to be at the office early, or work any kind of 9 to 5. They knew I was going out to clubs and concerts, that was what I was supposed to be doing.
There’s a saying in recovery that “My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking or drugging,” and I say, “Are you nuts? You must have been doing it wrong!” Because I once spent an afternoon, a few hours at his office, drinking bourbon with Keith Richards, who was working on the soundtrack to the Chuck Berry movie Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll. He said, “You want to hear some rough mixes,” and I said sure. So we got up, got closer to the speakers, and played air guitar together. I’ll never regret drinking that bottle of Maker’s Mark with Keith at all. That was a damn good day.
I feel more vital and productive than I ever imagined I’d be. Part of that is teaching for the last decade, at St. John’s University, where my age and experience are respected and rewarded, rather than feeling cast aside, “bye-bye boomer-ed” into obscurity and solitude.
What is difficult about being your age?
Seeing friends and people I know dying every day. That is hard. One tries not to think about it too much, but I suspect the pandemic has intensified what were “normal” feelings about aging, potential ailments, loss of acuity in certain areas.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I feel more vital and productive than I ever imagined I’d be. Part of that is teaching as an adjunct (at full professor rank) for the last decade, at St. John’s University in Queens, where my age and experience are respected and rewarded, rather than feeling cast aside, “bye-bye boomer-ed” into obscurity and solitude.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
Perspective is the plus. Our lives are all based on a narrative that we create, that is our story. And from childhood on, my story was full of negatives: I may have been among the last American kids to get polio (1959), and there’s abuse by the friendly neighborhood pedophile in my senior year of high school, that kind of stunted my development a bit. Now I can stop regretting that, reframe the narrative, feel less like a victim and more like someone who succeeded in overcoming some obstacles.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
I used to regret not being bigger, more disciplined, a better student, a better lover. I’m more comfortable with who I am. I have a rich inner life, a long good marriage, three amazing grown daughters who are all succeeding in their professions (two lawyers and a vaccine scientist). But I still wish I had Leonard Cohen’s sex appeal when I was younger. Or now.
From childhood on, my story was full of negatives: I may have been among the last American kids to get polio (1959), and there’s abuse by the friendly neighborhood pedophile in my senior year of high school, that kind of stunted my development a bit.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
None. I’m already almost 72, still have most of my hair. And again, the productivity at this age is a blessing. And I do not exercise, at all. I am in daily training in case “napping” becomes an Olympics sport.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
It’s such a cliché that they make movies about, but if I could be 10 again I would not have taken a called third strike in the Little League game that could have given our team a tie for first place. But no, I have no favorite age. I wish I knew some things then, anytime then, that I know now. And I would not do anything over again without antidepressant drugs, Adderall, Klonopin, and the availability of Viagra or Cialis.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
I don’t idolize anyone, but it is very heartening that Bob Dylan is still doing top-shelf work at 80, recording and performing. Tony Bennett can’t perform anymore, (Alzheimer’s), but until a few years ago he was still at the top of his game. Listen to him and Lady Gaga sing “The Lady is a Tramp” from six or seven years ago for a chemistry lesson.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
As I mentioned, a day without a nap is a day that I will be ready for bed by 7 pm. I definitely go to sleep earlier. Don’t go out to restaurants, I get bored quickly. I don’t watch as much sports as I used to, but those were often excuses to just drink away a night or a Sunday afternoon. I have always had doctors and therapists close at hand: cardiologist, urologist, gastroenterologist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist. I see them regularly. I always liked doctors and going to doctors, (some close friends and a son in law are MDs) possibly because of the polio, which took a while to diagnose, and I became a good patient because when I am sick, I like to get better, and I’m into preventive medicine, aka regular doctor visits. I get regular manicures. A gentleman my age should always be well-manicured.
I don’t idolize anyone, but it is very heartening that Bob Dylan is still doing top-shelf work at 80, recording and performing.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
I don’t know, I have no idea what I am supposed to do that I don’t do. I am very pro-legalization of marijuana and am encouraged by increasing studies on mescaline and other “mild” psychedelics. I sometimes wonder what “government weed” would be like, or mairjuana edibles, at least. But I no longer indulge, in fact, gave up weed before I quit drinking. I loved being a pothead, but the dry mouth thing I used to treat with a couple of vodka martinis.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I never liked birthdays at any age, since the year my parents decided that instead of separate birthday parties for me in December and my late younger brother in February, they’d invite all the relatives they didn’t like to a shared party in January. My mother had a very troubling logic sometimes, and I learned at a very young age that her view of the world was erratic, inconsistent, and wrong. And my dad didn’t care that much either way, so my brother and I were raised by wolves. (I was named after a great-grandfather named Wolf.) But in 2022 I am going to be admitted to the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, as a journalist/critic, so maybe I’ll encourage a nice 72nd birthday, god willing.